Thinking About Libraries, the Original Civic Platform

Libraries have always been dear to me. When I was growing up, the Carnegie-built library in my hometown was my sister’s and my favorite place to swing by during the summer — and not just for the books, mind you. They hosted wonderful youth engagement activities: volunteer opportunities, educational classes, and they even had a rental program for outdoor gear. (Indeed, it was a library that gave me my first fishing experience; the library, and well, the pond and its unlucky fish behind my neighbor’s home.) In the evenings, too, we often found ourselves with the whole family and dozens of other locals, enjoying live music at the library’s old, but pleasant bandstand.

Later, I would relish the limited time I had in England to get lost in its august libraries, and I still recall my trip up to Squirrel Island (named after the curiously fitting shape the isle’s land mass forms) with a good friend, whose father, and the town’s resident historian, walked me through centuries of Squirrel’s histories through old planning maps, black and white photos, and what had to be ancient boating equipment, all tacked on the small library’s walls. Even in our digital era, these relics — the artifacts, and the libraries themselves—easily come to life, with a touch of curiosity and a helpful guide.

Even in our digital era, these relics — the artifacts, and the libraries themselves—easily come to life, with a touch of curiosity and a helpful guide.

21st Century Libraries

Last year, though, I visited a library for whom the label artifact would be a misnomer. This was in San Leandro, a city in the Bay Area, who had recently appointed an inspired and energetic Chief Innovation Officer. We sat down to talk about her vision for her new role, civic tech, and the like, and somehow the conversation kept coming back to the library. And for good reason. It’s a massive, modern landmark in the city — one that with the population’s adoption of modern technology (typically seen as a competitor to libraries), its popularity has only grown. Attendance has never been higher, she told me, thanks in part to the gigabit-grade fiber line piping into the institution, and also in part to the open wifi network extending beyond the front doors. She said that I should see the area even after the doors are locked, often there will still be crowds, camped out on the front steps, pecking away on their laptops and phones.

That’s not the only one. Consider the numbers: 100 perfect of public librariesoffer free public Internet access; 90.5 percent have Wi-Fi; 65 percent report they are the only free provider their community; and 60 percent reported increased usage of workstations over the previous year. That’s impressive surface area, and more impressive growth rates. Plus, now there’s additional interest in accelerating that growth. In fact, the Knight Foundation recently committed nearly $1M to the New York and Chicago Public Libraries to expand their offerings of free, open internet.

That is to say, libraries stand for certain values, the values of community,opportunity, and collaboration.

Access, though, is just the start. Access to what, and to what end, are questions we should be asking as well. Because libraries have always held a normative position in our communities. They host convenings for the community; they provide access to valuable tools and resources; and they connect you to your local community and its history. That is to say, libraries stand for certain values, the values of community, opportunity, andcollaboration. So as we see these libraries take on new life, we must ask how they can continue to meet these goals, now tapped into the immense possibility the internet accords.

Hotspots for Civic Tech

I believe an opportunity lies within the technology we are building on the internet for our communities. See, those values are the very aspirations we have for technology built with civic ends: as a convener of disparate interests, a pathway to access for social mobility and civic participation; and a hotbed for community building and engagement.

How? Examples are already emerging. The city of Chattanooga is housingthe community’s open data catalog, smartly taking advantage of both their physical assets and their human ones: the data that lies within their maps, books, and records, as well as the insight afforded by the community curators known also known as libraries. Many others are building in technology training programs, and some even have erected “FabLabs” to draw in makers eager to get their hands on 3D printers and the like. When I was younger, the most interesting technology I saw at the library wasmicrofiche. That is quickly, and amazingly, changing.

Beyond these programs, though, I believe a more fundamental opportunity lies within our libraries: providing access and curation to the tools that matter. The same role, really, they’ve always played — just with a digital twist. As I’ve discussed before, I think increasingly we’ll need to move towards a set of core digital tools every community needs to be digitally engaged: mapping social services, like job training opportunities, for instance; or making it easy to track latest decisions coming down from City Hall. These new information streams have a natural home in the library. Indeed, I wonder if we might be able to more directly connect them. Imagine having the top 2-3 key civic applications launch at loading on every library computer in the country. Or on every laptop or smartphone that’s connecting to their wireless hotspot. That’s delivering digital services right where citizens are. (It’s worth noting that this isn’t an uncommon practice —common landing pages for networks—airports, for instance, do it all the time for advertisers’ apps and tools. Why shouldn’t we consider similar tactics to help spread the use of civic apps?)

It Goes Both Ways

It’s crucial, though, to note that while we push for libraries supporting more civic tech, that we as civic technologists engage the libraries themselves in identifying opportunities, needs, and projects. It should go both ways. Personally, I’ve seen remarkable engagement from the librarian community. (I gave a brief talk once during SXSW at an offsite librarian hangout, which may have gotten more twitter engagement than anything else I’ve done, and the conversation was fascinating.) Librarians get it. Clearly. Given their access to data, and their deep, human understanding of it, there’s a natural bridge we must build between them and the civic tech community — wherever it doesn’t exist.

In many ways, libraries were our original civic platform.

In many ways, libraries were our original civic platform. The have housed collaboration, community, and engagement across the country for centuries. Now as we envision “government as a platform,” we would be remiss to not take advantage of that infrastructure to realize that vision. More directly, we should strive to bring these two common assets together: the civic apps, innovative technology designed for the 21st century, and the libraries, historic civic institutions established in the 19th.

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